The latest chapter in the long-running dispute over how to manage water in the Klamath Basin is playing out in northern California communities.
The current issue is whether to approve a permit needed to tear down the four lower Klamath River dams to improve water quality and revive fish populations. This week, the California Water Board is holding several hearings on that permit. The first was held Tuesday night in Yreka.
About two dozen protesters are standing along Main Street in Yreka, the seat of Siskiyou County, which lies just across Oregon’s southern border. They’re holding signs saying “Stop The Klamath Dam Scams.”
Richard Marshall, president of the Siskiyou Water User’s Association, says removing the dams will raise the cost of power and endanger water supplies to farmers and ranchers. And, he says, it won’t help the river’s threatened salmon and other fish species.
"The fact of the matter, and history shows us, that the salmon never went up to the lower Klamath River." he said.
That “fact” is certainly in dispute. And, during the public hearing that followed, there was little that wasn't disputed.
First, Water Board staff gave an overview of the Draft Environmental Impact Report that analyzes the proposal. The 1,800-page document concludes that removing the dams -- with measures taken to ease potential problems that could arise – would result in cleaner, cooler water in the river that would be less prone to the algae blooms and disease outbreaks that have killed tens of thousands of fish.
That finding was music to the ears of Andrew Braugh, with the group California Trout.
"We are pleased that the draft EIR confirms that the proposed project will have long-term benefits associated with protecting water quality, which in turn assures a healthy aquatic habitat, greater spawning opportunities and reduction in the incidence of fish disease," he said.
Robert Super, a member of the Karuk Tribal Council, said the scarcity of fish has been a hardship on his people, as well as those of the nearby Yurok and Hoopa Valley tribes.
"This last year, we only gathered salmon for our ceremonies," he said. "We didn’t gather like we usually do, so we were trying to help our salmon get through, so we were letting them go."
Taylor Tupper is a member of the Klamath Tribes. She said the ciyals, the Klamath word for salmon, remain an intrinsic part of her people’s culture.
"We are a fish and water people, and we have been waiting over a hundred years for the return of the salmon, for our treaty right to be upheld," she said. "Still today, over one hundred years since Iron Gate was built in 1917, the ciyals have continued to travel toward their home in Klamath, and still today they break themselves at Iron Gate."
But local rancher Sheila Meamber predicted a slew of bad outcomes if the dams were to be removed.
"Increases in electricity rates will occur," she said. "People’s wells will dry up, homes and businesses will be prone to flooding, potential loss of water source for fire protection, property devaluation, and all of the property owners, farmers and ranchers affected will be forced to make up for the loss if this experiment fails."
Siskiyou County Tax Collector Wayne Hammar said PacifiCorp, the utility that owns and operates the dams – is the county’s largest taxpayer, contributing about 2 million dollars a year.
"Seventy percent of those dollars go directly to our schools, so whatever loss we’ll take by the removal of those dams and their infrastructure will directly hit our schools," he said. "Also it will affect public safety."
Several people warned the estimated 15 million tons of accumulated sediment that would be released by removing the dams would damage the river ecosystem. But another observed that, after the removal of two old dams on the Elwah River in Washington State, more than twice that much sediment had flushed out to sea with no long term impact.
After hearings this week in Arcata, Orleans and Sacramento, the Water Board will evaluate the comments on the draft environmental report and is expected to have a final report ready by this summer.
The dam removal question remains one of the most contentious parts of the complex water issues that have plagued the Klamath Basin for decades. And while the effort to decommission the dams appears to be moving toward completion, 2019 is shaping up to be another dry year, with potentially dire consequences for a river system that seems unable to meet all the demands humans are placing on it.